The lack of long-term planning for COVID-19 means the nation remains vulnerable for more major outbreaks of the condition in the future, top researchers have said.

Although the vaccine rollout has begun among the old and vulnerable, Professor Liam Smeeth, an expert in clinical epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has warned many people will still be at risk.

Speaking to the Observer newspaper, Professor Smeeth said: “Having 20 million people vaccinated is likely to reduce numbers of cases but we must not forget that this is a highly transmissible virus and if we do not continue with social measures, it will soon whip round communities again and cause havoc.

“I can understand the short-term panic that is going on at present as hospital cases rise so quickly but I am amazed at the sheer lack of long-term strategy there has been for dealing with Covid. I can see no signs of any thinking about it.”

His views are backed by fellow expert, Professor Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at Edinburgh University.

He said: “This epidemic would have unfolded very differently and in a much happier way if we had accepted, back in February, that we were in this for the long-term. However, the view that it was a short-term problem prevailed.

“It was thought we could completely suppress the virus, and that is why we are in the mess that we are in now.”

Dr Martin Hibberd, from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said COVID-19 “will not disappear” saying that even if “every human on Earth was vaccinated, we would still be at risk of it coming back”.

Dr Anne Johnson, an epidemiologist at University College London, thinks restrictions are here to stay for a while yet.

She said: “In March, we are still going to be under restrictions which will have to be imposed for months after that. What happens in autumn will depend on our success in keeping the virus down over the summer.

“We will also need to analyse how much virus there is in the community and calculate what antibody levels have been triggered by natural infections and by vaccination. These are going to be very important in determining the spread of the virus next winter.”

Professor Smeeth concluded: “Sadly, I feel we are very far from being out of this epidemic. It is possible the virus could mutate tomorrow to become harmless. That is not a totally naive hope.

“But having said that, so far all we have discovered are mutations that actually made it more infectious and that is something we should be preparing to deal with – though I don’t see much sign of that happening.”

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